Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters is a work of Christian satire by C. S. Lewis first published in book form in 1942 in the form of a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a junior tempter named Wormwood, so as to advise him on methods of securing the damnation of an earthly man, known only as "the Patient."

Screwtape (along with his trusted scribe Toadpipe) holds an administrative post in the bureaucracy ("Lowerarchy") of Hell, and acts more as a mentor than a supervisor to Wormwood, the inexperienced tempter; almost every letter ends with the signature, "Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape." In the body of the thirty-one letters which make up the book, Screwtape gives Wormwood detailed advice on various methods of undermining faith and promoting sin in his Patient, interspersed with observations on human nature and Christian doctrine.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis provides a series of lessons in the importance of taking a deliberate role in living out Christian faith by portraying a typical human life, with all its temptations and failings, as seen from the demon/devil's viewpoint. Wormwood and Screwtape live in a peculiarly morally reversed world, where individual benefit and greed are seen as the greatest good, and neither demon is capable of comprehending or acknowledging true human virtue when he sees it. A preface included in some older editions of the book included a short dialog on the subject of whether Lewis believed demons to be fact or fiction, exemplifying Lewis's belief that despite the fictional storyline of the book, he believed Satan and demons are not fictional; further, that he held a view that they exist for a decidedly evil purpose which must not be portrayed innocuously in art and culture at the risk of obfuscating their true nature.

When first published, The Screwtape Letters brought immediate fame to a little known Oxford don whose field of study was medieval English literature. Over the past sixty years its wit and wisdom have made it one of C. S. Lewis’ most widely read and influential works. While it is one of Lewis' most popular works, Lewis claimed that the book was "not fun" to write, and he "resolved never to write another 'Letter'." However, in 1959 he wrote an addendum, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which takes the form not of a letter but rather an after-dinner speech given by Screwtape at the Tempters' Training College for young demons. It first appeared as an article in the Saturday Evening Post.

Fortunately for the theater-going public Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean have adapted The Screwtape Letters for the stage. I attended a performance last night at The Mercury Theatre where the adaptation was presented by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts. Directed by Jeffrey Fiske and starring Max Mclean as Screwtape it was an impressive evening of theater. Complemented by Yvonne Gougelet as Toadpipe, his amanuensis, McLean gave a tour-de-force performance in this (almost) one-man show. The language of Lewis was marvelous and the addition of effective lighting and sound effects made the evening one of supreme satire. McLean's performance explained why sell-out crowds have continued to fill the Mercury theatre to see a christian satire from a book written more than a half-century ago. It was great theater.


candyschultz said...

I love The Screwtape Letters. It would be fun to see it performed. Aside from that and the Narnia books I really can't abide Lewis. Maybe it is because I am an atheist and former catholic. The religious stuff really annoys me.

James said...

I first read Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, many years ago. Screwtape followed and I also read some of his Christian apologetics while in college; but, like you, I am not of a religious persuasion and thus not impressed with that aspect of Lewis.
The Screwtape Letters on stage was a delight for its literary style and language.